27 November 2016

Review: After Atlas by Emma Newman

Image from http://www.enewman.co.uk/
After Atlas
Emma Newman
Roc, 10 November 2016
PB, 365pp

Source: Copy bought from Forbidden Planet at author signing (see below)

Emma Newman continues to impress me with her smart, slightly twisted takes on SF - in this case, she asks "what about those left behind?"

The earlier book, Planetfall, set in the same universe as After Atlas, focussed on human settlers to a new world some 20 years in. It showed how they had been drawn there by almost religious fervour, and what happened next - with a startling twist. The concept reminded me of classic Star Trek except for the deep, empathetic portrayal of the main character and her weaknesses which gave the book so much heart.

Now, we're back on Earth at the same time (I think) as the Planetfall events. We see the awful place earth has become, which the colonists on Atlas wanted to escape. The remorseless march or corporatism has swallowed governments, which have become "gov-corps". Everyone is surveilled all the time, most people have chips embedded and there seem to be no human rights, only contracts - and some are trapped by those contracts into something not far off slavery.

Carlos is one such. Owned by the Ministry of Justice in the UK, he's been trained and formed ('hot-housed') into the perfect criminal investigator. He will work to 80 or thereabouts to repay the cost of his purchase with any failure, any rebellion punished by extra years on the contract. Yet as we find out later he has an easy time compared to some.

Carlos is brought in to solve a high profile case involving the leader of a religious sect - the Circle - from the US. The Circle consists of the people left behind when Atlas flew - one of whom was Carlos's mother (Newman makes a telling point that there's more blame heaped on the mother who left her child than the many fathers). he used to be a member of the Circle so he's ideally placed to understand what happened in a remote hotel in Devon. (The case also gives him the chance to enjoy real - non printed - food: Carlos's love of good food is an enjoyable diversion against a fairly grim background).

The book then adopts the mode - if not the normal setting - of a police procedural, with forensics, pathology, the search for evidence and a rising sense that something is off, someone isn't playing by the rules. We gradually come to sympathise with Carlos more and more, not least the grief and anger which he is clearly bottling up - assisted by the lessons from his hot-housing. He's an awkward, slightly spiky character and so, so alone.

Then - things change. I can't say too much about this for fear of spoilers but the book moves into a different mode. Something awful happens to Carlos and the stakes are suddenly much higher. Then Newman redoubles the jeopardy yet again, boosting things both to a new level of danger but also changing the sort of book this is in a heartbreaking conclusion. I was left standing in the dark on a cold railway platform so that I could read the last few pages before I drove home - it's that compelling. This is, in short, a compulsive and disturbing read. As well as sheer, relentless story we get to see the lives of those shut out of the glamorous space adventure described in Planetfall. Of course we know how that turned out - they don't, and many are damaged: Carlos's father, driven to grief and despair, for example. That's an angle on space-faring and the Final Frontier that you don't normally see.

It isn't perfect - I wonder if perhaps that first twist might come a bit sooner, as there is relatively little time then to explore the consequences? Things then seem a bit rushed at the end. But it's a testament to the power of the writing that I'm only saying that in hindsight: when you're in this book you just want it to keep coming and coming.

The best thing of all is, though, that there surely MUST be more books to come now in the Planetfall universe? It can't just end like this, can it? Please Emma?

The author reading from After Atlas at Forbidden Planet London
(12 November 2016)

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